Blast off! Into the realm of big bangs and black holes with our first Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy
“I asked my teacher ‘But what is energy?’ He reassured me not to worry about it for my exam, but to think about going to university, where I might learn why this was such a difficult question to answer!”
Professor Carole Mundell, Department of Physics
Our new look alumni magazine, BA2, is out of this world – inside and out. As well as a 50th year stellar design makeover it features a piece on our newest stargazing academic, Professor Carole Mundell. Here’s an extract – follow the link at the end to see the whole story.
“I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me,” wrote William Herschel in 1780. From his garden in New King Street, Bath, Herschel had scanned the night sky using a telescope he had built himself and saw Uranus. It was a discovery which effectively doubled the size of the then known Universe, and secured his adopted city a place in the history books.
Twenty-first-century astronomy moves faster than in the days of the ‘gentlemen astronomers’. As ever more powerful telescopes come on line, discoveries are being made every day; yet to be successful in the field still requires Herschelian curiosity, ingenuity and a can do approach. Enter our newest stargazer-in-residence, Professor Carole Mundell.
Carole, Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy, joined us last year as Head of Astrophysics, to lead our new Physics with Astrophysics undergraduate course and build a new research group. Carole has spent her career studying black holes and their environments, winning prestigious fellowships and awards. “The physics of these systems are still poorly understood but we’ve found many examples using ground and space-based telescopes”, she explained. ”The most powerful kind are called gamma ray bursts and they challenge both our theories and technologies.”
Gamma ray bursts were discovered by accident in the 1960s, when military satellites orbiting Earth mistook them for evidence of rogue states breaking the nuclear test ban treaty. Now confirmed as cosmic rather than terrestrial in origin, these bursts are compelling because they represent what Carole terms ‘the realm of extreme physics’.
“Ultimately the universe is a very good place to test the laws of physics because we have some of the highest energy processes and the greatest distances over which to test things,” she explains. “Because these bursts are associated with strong gravitation and magnetic fields, they’re in the kinds of places in the universe where we hope to discover and test new laws of physics.”
By analysing gamma ray bursts using telescopes around the world and in space, observational astrophysicists like Carole gain information about the physical processes that produced them. But their field is at a tipping point.
Currently around two bursts are recorded a week, but new facilities under development are set to revolutionise their work by surveying vast swathes of the sky in real time. Carole’s team are at the vanguard of this new kind of science but the possibility of receiving notification of up to a million new events every night is daunting. This ‘Big Data’ challenge is one which Carole predicts will require interdisciplinary innovation, bringing together astrophysicists, mathematicians, physicists, engineers and computer scientists.
“Astronomy for me was not a childhood hobby,” Carole admits, “but my parents were very supportive of my learning. My father, a biomedical scientist, encouraged my brother and I to do simple experiments such as growing salt crystals, testing for acids or alkalines, doing chromotography using blotting paper and ink. We were learning about the scientific method without realising it.”
Carole’s high-school teachers further encouraged her talent for physics. She puzzled over the deeper physics underlying basic high school physics. After a lesson on energy, she was concerned she was failing to understand something important. She asked her teacher ‘But what is energy?’ “He reassured me not to worry about it for my exam, but to think about going to university, where I might learn why this was such a difficult question to answer!” she laughs.
She duly won a place at Glasgow University to read Physics, but her first year Astronomy module wasn’t an instant hit. “Astronomy was a culture shock; it seemed a much more approximate subject than physics and there were no women lecturers in the astronomy group,” she says. “I was pretty sure I was going to drop the subject at the end of my first year, but then I saw Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell speak at the student physics society. I was captivated. The thrill of discovery and the real world of cutting-edge astrophysics research – suddenly, I could see this was a real choice for me.”
Carole is a strong advocate for diversity in science and is keen to inspire others in the way that Jocelyn Bell Burnell inspired her. “Physics has traditionally been male dominated, with the popular stereotype of a physics professor being a white man with a beard! People like Jocelyn cleared a tiny, narrow path for women like me to come through. We need to continue this so that physics is open to all irrespective of gender and ethnicity.”
When William Herschel built his telescope it was unthinkable that he would discover a whole new planet through it. Whatever discovery the world is on the verge of next, there’s a good chance that Carole and students at Bath will be at the forefront.
Read the full story in BA2.